Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Tyrant's Feast

Continuing my intermittent series of the past couple of months on my 'Discarded story ideas', here's one that I actually made quite a lot of progress with - and the only time that I've attempted to write a play. (I think this was why I abandoned it in the end. I approached it more as an exercise in technique than something I really wanted to produce for its own sake, and I found it damned hard going. I'm not good with dialogue.)

The starting inspirations here were a fascination with dictators, and particularly with the seemingly wildly unstable 'banana republics' of South America where they sometimes had a regime change every few months (when I was a very young kid I wrote a would-be satirical, blackly comic short story called 'Viva Who?', in which numerous different groups were simultaneously trying to storm the Presidential Palace of such a country, each completely ignorant of the others' presence or agenda), and with the idea that the concepts of 'rebel' and 'oppressor' may not be morally clearcut, but rather are stereotypical roles that the parties may lapse into - perhaps unconsciously, but often to their mutual convenience (a notion probably inspired in part by my favourite Kurt Vonnegut novel, Cat's Cradle, in which the founder of the Bokononist religion and his friend contrive such a dualistic paradigm for their subsequent relationship). And the central plot device was suggested to me by that resonant phrase from Macbeth.

So... I had the harsh dictator of an unnamed country 'inviting' one his leading critics to a private dinner for two (in fact, kidnapping him overseas and bringing him to the audience by force). During the course of their conversation, we learn that in their young days they had been close friends and joint leaders of an idealistic revolutionary movement that sought to oust the oppressive previous government. We see that the dictator still has a strong moral core, claims to be devoted to the betterment of his country and regretful of some of the harsher acts he has been obliged to commit, justifies his stern rule as necessary to maintain stability in a young and disunited country. We also see that the dissident is not entirely virtuous, but prone to self-aggrandisement, wilfully provoking persecution to cast himself in the role of a martyr (I came up with the idea that he had been one of the country's leading doctors, but had refused to help the dictator with his healthcare reforms, and had eventually prompted his exile by instead lobbying aggressively for investment in his own specialism of transplant surgery - an unaffordable luxury in a fledgeling country).

The dictator does not want to abuse or punish his old adversary, but is seeking a rapprochement with him. In fact, grown weary of power, he has conceived a fantasy of inviting his enemy to take his place at the head of the government. When his guest starts to believe in the possible sincerity of this suggestion, his weakness for the allure of fame and glory starts to come to the fore, and he is eventually persuaded to try on the dictator's role - symbolised by his donning of a Fascist military uniform - for the rest of their conversation.

Act 2, the second half of the dinner table conversation, sees the progressive corruption of the supposedly selfless and idealistic opposition leader. The retiring dictator introduces him to the practical difficulties of running the country, and it starts to become apparent that his would-be replacement's instincts are in many cases to adopt even more ruthless policies than he has done. This section ends abruptly when a young man breaks into the dictator's apartments and shoots the opposition leader dead, apparently having mistaken him for the dictator because of the uniform.

Act 3 sees the dictator interrogating the assassin about his motives, and discovering to his surprise that the young man had in fact intentionally murdered the opposition leader, while he idolises the dictator for his harsh but well-intentioned rule. The play ends with the dictator realising that there is no way for him to escape the onerous responsibilities of his position. Impressed by the young killer's forthrightness, he is tempted to pardon him, but worries that this will have unacceptable consequences. He asks the young man how he thinks he should be treated, and he replies that of course the dictator has no option but to execute him, that it is necessary for the good of the country.

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